Seth Rogen and the Eddie Murphy Dilemma
It was a rainy Friday night and I hadn’t spent the mortgage money on a feature film in a few weeks. The wife wasn’t feeling well and the boy was itching for something to do. The new DreamWorks joint Monsters vs. Aliens had just hit the screen. The solution seemed simple.
With nothing in the way of plot, good comedy, or overarching message to distract me, I found myself thinking about the character they called B.O.B. Voiced by America’s latest comedy obsession, Seth Rogen, B.O.B. is a gelatinous, brainless blob of a monster that occasionally likes to ingest mass quantities. It reminded me a lot of some of the characters Rogen tends to play. While there was no great competition in the movie for best character, I came away thinking B.O.B. was the funniest and most enjoyable. Later, I wondered why. I came up with one answer.
We Hollywood consumers have been conditioned to like and laugh at Rogen. It’s easy to do. He plays a character we like–hapless (Knocked Up), occasionally stoned (Pineapple Express), addicted (in this case, sex addicted in The 40 Year Old Virgin), and drunk and stupid (Superbad). Add in an amalgam of them all for his other feature films and you’ve got Rogen down. He plays the doofus.
Don’t get me wrong. I laugh at Rogen. He’s kicking Hollywood’s ass and seemingly doing just fine for himself. I think it just took me off guard that I was laughing at B.O.B., not because he was a very well-written character, but because Rogen was doing the voice. And make no mistake, it’s the same voice we hear in the echo chamber of stoned doofuses that is the modern Hollywood comedy.
As I sat and listened to the echo for a minute, I wondered how I’d felt the same way before. Then it hit me. It had been 20 years or so, but it might have been yesterday.
The Eddie Murphy laugh.
I think just about every kid of the 80s had his own version of the Eddie Murphy laugh. If there was a conditioning character in my youth, it was Eddie Murphy’s carefree bad boy. From Trading Places, to Beverly Hills Cop, to 48 Hours, Murphy was one character. The plot didn’t matter so much as making sure Murphy’s character was in the movie. After that, just pad it out with some car chases and blue humor and they had a hit movie.
Of course, we’re only talking about typecasting here. It’s a hard to avoid pitfall in show business. If you’re good at something (especially when it’s making people laugh), the people who make the movies are going to want you to repeat it as many times as you can. The inherent danger, it seems, is what you do when you’re tired of playing “that guy.”
Take Murphy (please!). If you study the funnyman’s career arc, you can almost pinpoint the moment Murphy said, “Let’s try something different.” It happened somewhere around the time he did The Golden Child and Coming to America. No doubt, he had the chops to be be funny in a way that wasn’t exactly the same as the other characters he’d done in the past. It worked, up until the point Murphy made the decision that “not being that guy” simply wasn’t enough.
Enter Harlem Nights. I’ll admit, I love this movie and it’s for reasons that I don’t understand. If you look closely at it, though, it was one of, if not the first time Murphy let his cool trump his funny. Despite my silly love for the film, I think this marked the point at which the shark jumped over Murphy. If it wasn’t clear when that movie came out, you only had to wait until the abomination that was Boomerang. After that, we were forced into a series of godforsaken films like Dr. Doolittle, The Nutty Professor, and Vampire in Brooklyn. Had it not been for Murphy basically calling back his huckster from the 80s in the form of Shrek‘s Donkey, we might not have heard from the man ever again.
I don’t sit down this morning to hate on Murphy or Rogen. Both are wildly successful and talented guys. At their respective times, they were/are the kings of comedy. That they got typecast is not necessarily their fault. Rogen is still a youngster (nearly ten years younger than I am) and has yet to hit his midlife crisis in Hollywood.
Once again, we should look to Murphy. He was in his early to mid 30s when it seemed like Boomerang was a good idea. Rogen still has a few years to go before he hits that point. In the meantime, he can continue to exhibit his range of being able to jump from hapless stoner to hapless fornicator to hapless drunk in the blink of an eye. Eventually, though, he is going to want to do something other than the character that grabbed Judd Apatow’s attention and made the Canadian comedy wunderkind a character in every other comedy that comes out of Tinseltown.
If Rogen is in fact infected with the Eddie Murphy problem, he’s probably already discovered there are two possible solutions and neither of them are all that appealing. He can stick to Stoner Seth and be “that” guy for the rest of his career, or he can branch out and possibly go the way of the Eddie.
That is, there will be day in the not-so-distant future that Rogen may be forced to sit down over a joint and start thinking, “Maybe I really should give that adaptation of Nicolas Sparks’ new book a chance.”